Concert Notes

Time Tracks: The VSO’s Season Opener

Time Tracks
Bramwell Tovey
b. Essex, England / July 11, 1953

Coming soon. 

Absolute Jest
John Adams
b. Worcester, Massachusetts, USA / February 15, 1947

Absolute Jest for string quartet and full orchestra (2012) was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony for its one-hundredth anniversary. It ingeniously combines original material with quotations from major works of Beethoven, especially the string quartets that were his final compositions.

“Six months after the première, I decided to compose a different beginning to Absolute Jest,” John Adams wrote. “a full 400 bars of completely new music, replacing the ‘quadrangular’ feel of (Beethoven’s) Op. 131 scherzo with a bouncing 6/8 pulse that that launches the piece in what is to my ears a far more satisfying fashion. The rolling 6/8 patterns recall the Ninth Symphony scherzo but also sum up other references – of the Hammerklavier Sonata, of the Eighth Symphony and other archetypal Beethoven motives that come and go like cameo appearances on a stage.

“The high-spirited triple-time scherzo of the F Major Quartet, Op. 135 (Beethoven’s final work in that medium) enters about a third of the way through, and becomes the dominant motivic material for the remainder of the piece, interrupted only by a brief slow section that interweaves fragments of the Grosse Fuge with the opening fugue theme of the C-sharp Minor Quartet. A final furious coda features the solo string quartet charging ahead at full speed over an extended orchestral pedal based on the famous Waldstein Sonata harmonic progression.

“The act of composing the work (one that took nearly a year of work) was the most extended experience in pure ‘invention’ that I’ve ever undertaken. Its creation was for me a thrilling lesson in counterpoint, in thematic transformation and formal design. The ‘jest’ of the title should be understood in terms of its Latin meaning, ‘gesta:’ doings, deeds, exploits. I like to think of ‘jest’ as indicating an exercising of one’s wit by means of imagination and invention.”

Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky          
b. Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia / May 7, 1840;
d. St. Petersburg, Russia / November 6, 1893

Ten years passed between the creation of Tchaikovsky’s fourth and fifth symphonies. He completed No. 5 in August 1888. It earned little favour at first but it quickly found great success.

As he had done with Symphony No. 4, he based No. 5 on a recurring musical theme that represented his outlook on life at that time. By then, his attitude to fate had softened somewhat, possibly due to a rebirth in religious feeling. He now referred to it by the less intimidating name “providence.” Reflecting this shift, the Fifth Symphony’s “providence” theme is much less aggressive that its counterpart in Symphony No. 4. It appears in the opening bars, intoned quietly and soberly by the clarinets.

Where the Fourth Symphony’s “fate” theme is heard only in the first and last movements, and remains unchanged from one appearance to the next, the Fifth’s “providence” theme plays a role in each of the four movements. Its character also evolves to match the emotional progress of the music.

After the introduction, the opening movement contrasts restless striving, represented in the first theme, a march-like variant of the motto, with a second subject whose heartfelt yearning is expressed with maximum eloquence by the strings. The second movement can only be described as a passionate love-idyll. Its sweeping, swelling raptures are twice interrupted, with a newly developed sense of forcefulness, by the “providence” theme.

Next comes a typically elegant Tchaikovsky waltz. The sole blemish on its courtly façade is provided by a brief, almost casual appearance of “providence,” just before the end. The theme stands proudly on display in the slow-tempo introduction to the finale, where it is heard in a major key for the first time. The finale proper emerges swiftly out of the final bars of this passage. It is one of Tchaikovsky’s most joyous and energetic symphonic movements, strongly coloured with the hearty flavours and dancing rhythms of Russian folk music. Brass fanfares and a thunderous timpani roll herald a pause for breath. Its transformation complete, “providence” passes by in a sturdy processional, before a whirlwind coda brings the symphony home.

Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64
1. Andante – Allegro con anima
2. Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza
3. Valse: Allegro moderato
4. Finale: Andante maestoso – Allegro vivace (alla breve)


Programme Notes © 2017 Don Anderson

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